Nebraska research works to identify race roles in police reform

Aug. 16, 2016, 6:44 a.m. ·

Researchers used the events of Ferguson, Missouri and other officer-involved shootings to shed light on how the public feels about race and police reforms. (Photo courtesy University of Nebraska-Lincoln)

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National events over the past two years have opened up a dialogue on police policy and race. Recently published research coming out of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln is attempting to gauge public opinion on police reform. NET News spoke with Ingrid Haas, one of the authors of a study examining how our individual experiences affect how we view police relations.

NET NEWS: Take us back to how this research began and really what prompted it for you and your colleague at the University of Washington - Allison Skinner

INGRID HAAS: We started this project in the fall of 2014 after the events in Ferguson, Missouri when Michael Brown was shot by police. So in thinking about what was going on at the time we're really interested in trying to understand people's kind of emotional and attitudinal responses to those events and how those responses influenced support or opposition to policing policy reform.

NET NEWS: And how did you go about gauging those opinions?

INGRID HAAS: In the initial set of studies what we did was we simply recruited participants - both student participants and older adults - community participants, and we asked them in the context of what had happened in Ferguson, Missouri to tell us whether that event made them feel threatened both by the police and threatened by black men, specifically. We focused on black men because black men are the group that's most likely to be stereotyped in relation to crime and the group that's gotten a lot of attention in terms of their relationship and sometimes conflict that comes up with the police. So we asked people to tell us how threatened they felt by both groups and then we asked them whether or not they supported a series of policing policy reforms. That included things like demographic matching, where you try to make sure that the racial diversity in the police department is similar to the racial diversity in the community that they're policing. We also asked about things like use of force. Is use of force appropriate? In how many different types of situations? There were a couple other issues related to policy, as well as like the use of body cameras. If people expressed more threat from the police they were more likely to support policing policy reforms and more likely to say that we should use body cameras or a police force should be racially diverse, and less likely to say that the police should use force in a wide array of situations. On the other hand, if participants said that they felt more threatened by black men then they were less likely to support those police reforms things like body cameras or demographic matching; and they were also more likely to say that use of force was OK in a wider array of situations. We gave people a list of situations when they could say that it was OK for the police to use deadly force or not.

NET NEWS: When talking about police reform, how important is it that race be part of the discussion?

INGRID HAAS: I think that it's very difficult to separate race from discussion of policing reform and I'm not sure that we should try to do so and that's for a couple different reasons. One is that when basically what we found in this research is that race is really tied to how people think about the police and how the police should act and what policing policy should look like. People's attitudes about race and feeling toward different racial groups are related to how they feel about the police and vice versa. And it's also important to note that a lot of white Americans don't necessarily accept this idea that there is data statistics and other data from social and political psychology that suggests that black Americans are more likely to be targets of police use of force and other sort of interventions by the police than white Americans are. I think that to me means that any discussion of policing in America is sort of inherently tied to our feelings or attitudes about race.

NET NEWS: How did respondents react to specific aspects like ‘use of deadly force’? That seems to be central in the conversation lately about police reform.

INGRID HAAS: One of the things that we thought was interesting in this research was that we did ask people about use of force and whether or not they thought it was appropriate in a wide array of situations. One of the things that kind of surprised us about this work was at least some people said that it was OK to use force and use deadly force even in situations where you wouldn't necessarily think it was warranted - if someone is simply committing a crime and the police officers are not necessarily in danger. We still had some subset of our participants say that it was OK to use even deadly force in those situations. Some people seem very willing to support police use of force and that is exacerbated if people feel like there's some level of threat from black men. In a couple of our later studies we actually presented people with media images of black men engaged in protest and found that seeing images like that can sort of heighten this feeling of threat. That makes it more likely that people will support the use of force in a wider variety of situations.